Fancy a roadtrip? Don't have a driver? No problem! The team from VisLab have just completed a journey from across two continents in two autonomous vans – the longest single trip undertaken by an autonomous vehicle. Over the 8,000 miles (13,000km) there were only a few technical hiccups and it seems that border officials, the police, journalists and tired crew members were a bigger hazard than the tough road conditions.
The VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge (VIAC) mission was designed to test existing technology in conditions that would be more extreme than most autonomous vehicle would be expected to operate in. While the vehicles didn't get through the entire journey completely unscathed it was a success.
Bureaucratic rather than technical issues were the most prolific along the way with frequent boarder stoppages – most notably at the Russia / Kazakhstan border and Kazakhstan / China border. In Russia the team managed to talk their way out of getting the first traffic infringement for an Autonomous Vehicle.
“We were preparing our demo, testing in a pedestrian area with our driverless vehicles," one of the VisLab team members blogged in September. "A local policeman, who apparently was not aware of our presence, saw our vehicles moving in a restricted area and approached them to talk to the driver and stop them. Then he realized there was no driver! And the vehicles were speeding between obstacles. He then looked around and tried to find a clue of what was happening. He really seemed puzzled about that.”
We can only assume that in future autonomous vehicles will be able to talk their own way out of traffic infringements.
The only technical problems they experienced were a power surge in mid October that caused multiple battery failures, bringing one of the vans to a halt, and problems with their satellite communications system. While the GPS navigation system was not affected by the satellite failure the team were without communications for much of the trip.
Twice the vehicles were involved in run away situations and both were due to human error. The first involved a weary team member who turned off the visual sensors but failed to disengage the navigation system (x-by-wire and planning systems) when exiting the vehicle. This caused the van to attempt to move on to the next GPS way point however it only got as far as the leader van which was parked meters in front. The damage to both vehicles was minor. Only days later at a media display in Saratov, Russia, they had another run away van, but this time was due to pesky journalists – who were ridding inside the van – pressing buttons they shouldn't have. Nobody was hurt.
The two vans finally made their way into busy Shanghai after 92 days on the road. Having traveled 8000 miles (13,000km) through deserts and over mountains, navigating dirt tracks and even picking up a couple hitch hikers the expedition was hailed a success. VisLab needed to use human intervention only on a handful of occasions during the trip including in Moscow gridlock traffic where the local vehicles traveled three abreast on a two lane highway.The vans wanted to stay in their lane and this caused problems for the locals who didn't!
While this becomes the longest single trip undertaken by an autonomous vehicle the Google fleet of driverless vehicles have driven an impressive 140,000 miles (225,000km) since testing began in 2005.